Culdesac; A Novella from the War With No Name, by Robert Repino- review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Culdesac; A Novella from the War With No Name, by Robert Repino.
NYC, Soho Press, November 2016, trade paperback $9.99 (110 pages + an 11-page preview of D’Arc), Kindle $7.99.
This is a side-story to Repino’s Mort(e), reviewed here in June 2015. In Mort(e), the ants declare a war of extinction against mankind. In addition to fighting humanity by themselves, including producing human-sized ant warriors, they use their “mysterious technology” to transform all animals into anthropomorphic intelligent beings. “Suddenly, farm animals, ferals, and pets could think and speak. Their bodies changed, allowing them to walk on their hind legs and use their hands like a human.” (p. 1)
The protagonist of Mort(e) is Sebastian, a pet housecat. When he is transformed, he takes the name Mort(e) and becomes a warrior in the elite Red Sphinx guerilla company under Captain Culdesac, a bobcat. When the ants and animals win, he is given ownership of the home he used to live in as a pet. But he remains a loner, skeptical about the animals’ alliance with the Colony, the underground ant super-nest; and about the animals’ ability to build a new society more successful than the humans’ had been. When the last human survivors resume the war with a new weapon, Mort(e) rejoins the Red Sphinx. The conclusion of the novel reveals whether the animals’ new world is stable, what the Colony’s true goal is, and what happens to Mort(e).
Culdesac takes place during Mort(e). It focuses upon the bobcat commander of the Red Sphinx, who is only a minor supporting character in Mort(e). Unlike Mort(e), who had known humans as a pampered pet and had doubts about turning upon them, Culdesac was a wild predator who grew up knowing only the law of kill-or-be-killed. He brings that attitude to the Red Sphinx. “Relentless, bloody, and unforgiving, Culdesac is the story of an antihero with no soul to lose, carving a path of destruction that consumes the innocent and the guilty alike.” (blurb)
“Culdesac was no mere conscript in the war with no name. He fought it his entire life, long before the Queen uplifted him, changing him from an animal to something more.
“He and his brother did not have names. Culdesac knew his brother by scent, and by the growling noise his mother made when she called him. When something dangerous approached, his mother let out two quick grunts: mer-mer. At night, when they ate from a carcass, Culdesac’s brother would sometimes lick the blood from his mother’s face and paws. In these moments, she would say his name more gently, both a salutation and a thank-you. Years later, after the Change gave Culdesac the ability to speak, he thought of his brother as Murmur. A fitting name for a powerful bobcat who rarely needed to speak.” (pgs. 6-7)
Culdesac is set when Mort(e) is a new member of the Red Sphinx. He has just become Culdesac’s second-in-command. Other feline warriors, Culdesac’s and Mort(e)’s mates, include Tiberius, Uzi, Dutch, Anansi, Dread, Gai Den, Seljuk, and others. The Red Sphinx has been advancing toward an abandoned East Coast town:
“The town itself did not make things any easier. Once called Milton, the little hamlet resembled so many other deserted places Culdesac encountered, with a lonely highway ramp leading onto a main street consisting of gas stations, bars, a church, a school, a strip mall. Several rows of houses cut into the forest beyond. An old factory, abandoned long before the war, sat rotting near the train tracks, its boarded windows covered with graffiti, a black hole of decay that sucked in the surrounding buildings. A decades-old housing project quarantined the poor from the rest of the community. Several monuments to the town’s history stood rusting in the more prosperous neighborhood, including a war memorial and a few plaques commemorating houses that were used for both the Underground Railroad and for bootlegging.” (pgs. 16-17)
The ants and their uplifted animal allies have been winning their war against the humans, advancing on all fronts. The animals have been reclaiming the humans’ towns. But the ant Colony’s Queen is still directing the war, and she has ordered the Red Sphinx to go into Milton and evacuate the town. Neither the warriors nor the civilian animals in Milton understand the need to evacuate:
“A few of the townsfolk gathered around the square, most likely attracted by the smell, but also curious about this band of feline warriors. Culdesac counted a family of squirrels, a few dogs and cats, a raccoon, a rabbit. As the only all-feline unit in the army, answering directly to the Queen, the Red Sphinx earned a reputation among the animals. But here, the fearsome soldiers played games with the children. Bailarina kicked a soccer ball along the cobblestone street with two kittens. One of them pointed to her gun, and she told him that it was not a toy. When a kitten slipped and fell on the wet stones, Bailarina helped him to his feet and brushed the dirt from his fur. Nearby, Folsom let a puppy wear his helmet. A few sizes too big, the helmet covered the dog’s eyes, making her giggle and wag her tail. Soon the other children wanted to try it on.” (p. 42)
As far as Culdesac, Mort(e), and the Red Sphinx soldiers are concerned, orders are orders. But the animals of Milton do not want to give up their homes. Their spokeswoman/cat is Nox:
“The cat shuffled out from her hiding spot. She rose on her hind legs to a height taller than the others, almost as tall as Culdesac. Her irises had a golden tinge. Brown, gray, and black stripes cut across her thick coat. Shaggy hair hung from her cheekbones, and a tuft of fur formed a little patch under her chin. Her bushy tail slid out from behind the crate like a python. Culdesac recognized the breed: a Maine coon cat, no doubt raised by wealthy humans to appear feral while at the same time being affectionate, loyal, docile. Like a goddamn dog, almost.” (pgs. 27-28)
Needless to say, Culdesac and Nox do not hit it off. Or do they? Nox was the pet of the owners of Milton’s Royal Inn, its biggest hotel. Since the animals’ uplift, she has become the new mistress of the hotel, which she has turned into a brothel for Milton’s cats and dogs. But her arguments to Culdesac against the evacuation are more intellectual than sensual. Why should they evacuate if the animals are winning? The animals and ants are supposed to rule the world together, in partnership and equality; why are the ants still giving orders? Culdesac, who is unused to logic and debating, falls back on “orders are orders”, at the same time getting the feeling that Nox and the other town animals have another, secret reason for not wanting to leave Milton.
Culdesac (cover by Sam Chung) is a worthy followup to Mort(e). The novella ends with a ten-page preview of D’Arc, the next full novel in the War With No Name series, due in May 2017.